Common ground here
Saints are eyeing Patriots blueprint
FOXBOROUGH — When NFL commissioner Roger Goodell came down on the New Orleans Saints for running a bounty program, the punishments were unprecedented.
Both head coach Sean Payton, the mastermind who led them to the Super Bowl in February of 2010, and linebacker Jonathan Vilma, an instrumental piece of their defense, were suspended for the entire season. Defensive end Will Smith was banned for three games. Two players who aren’t even in their locker room anymore — defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove and linebacker Scott Fujita — lost a combined 11 games.
The penalties were meant to send a message.
If there was one person in the Saints organization who had seen anything remotely close to this, it was tight end David Thomas, who was in New England in 2007 when the Patriots had to pay their penance for a videotaping scandal.
“When everything for us came down, we had a meeting right when we were starting offseason workouts,” said safety Roman Harper. “All the players came in, and Dave Thomas said he had been on that team, and the biggest thing was it will be only be a distraction if you let it be a distraction.
The drama never stopped chasing the Patriots that season, but they were defiant, gleefully blowing out teams like the Redskins (52-7) and Bills (56-10), and assembling a perfect regular-season record with an us-against-the-world chip on their shoulder.
“That was the motto that they really took in that locker room,” Harper said. “We kind of took the same thing. As long as we stick together in our locker room — which is a great one — and we don’t let outsiders get in and continue to be a distraction, it won’t distract us.
“We can continue to win games, continue to stockpile wins, and see where we’re at at the end of the year.”
These Saints can look at how the Patriots went through the 2007 season and use it to get through this one.
“They’ve had some adversity and did a great job of handling it,” said acting head coach Joe Vitt. “I’ve had conversations with Bill [Belichick].
“We know that our players are strong. We’ve been through adversity before, but there’s really no comparisons when you’re getting ready to get through these practices. We’re trying to get better, both teams, every day.”
Saints tight end Jimmy Graham wasn’t even in the league when Spygate broke out, but it was impossible not to know its impact.
“They’re a class organization who handled that situation amazingly,” he said. “We can learn from that, how they handled that situation, and try and do the same this year.”
The adversity is as much common ground as the desire to keep outsiders outside.
And as much as it feels like things are working against them as the prepare for the season, the Saints, like the Patriots five years ago, feel they have a machine that won’t stop running.
“Our program is set,” said Vitt. “I am doing what Sean has established since ‘06. Our schedule’s intact. The way we evaluate personnel is intact. The way we install is intact. Our teaching is intact.
“Our players don’t talk about it nearly as much as everybody here does to try to sell papers. We’re trying to get better and we’re trying to get prepared for the season.”
During the Saints’ Super Bowl season, the Patriots held joint practices with New Orleans, but Belichick said doing it without Payton feels different.
“I miss Sean not being here,” Belichick said. “I think the world of Sean and he’s a great friend. I look forward to seeing him back out here soon.”
But Payton is still very much a part of the Saints’ day-to-day process. Vitt, who has coached in the league for 34 years, is still following his blueprint to the letter.
“It hasn’t been different at all,” said Graham. “Joe has really done a good job to fill in for Sean and do the things and say the things exactly how we would have done it.
“Every time he comes in, in front of the team, a lot of the things we do are like we do always with Sean and then he’ll carry on with the rest of the conversation. That’s just how it is here. Everyone’s stepping up. Everyone knows how this machine works.”
The possibility exists that Vilma could see his suspension reduced. There was a report that the NFL offered to cut his punishment to eight games if he would cease his legal action against it, but the league denied the report.
Quarterback Drew Brees is hopeful that Vilma would not have to sit out the entire season.
“I’m optimistic and confident in just about everything,” Brees said. “I hope that others see it that way, and I hope that we’re able to accomplish that. I hope we’re able to get Vilma back out here.”
In that way, the mentality isn’t as much us-against-the-world as one might think.
“I would say, more or less, it’s business as usual,” Graham said. “We’re professional athletes here, we have a lot of veterans and it’s more of a family here. So we know we all do need to lean on each other more and we need to have guys step up, but it’s pretty much business as usual.
“I think this team is very mentally tough. And as it goes on, we’re going to get tougher. This offseason, it can do nothing but make you tougher. We’re going to use that going into each one of these games.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.